The first time I practiced asana . . .
I was about 11 years old. I’m forty-four now. Yoga has been an on-again, off-again love affair that came and went in my life, gaining and losing favour, depending on a variety of moves and changes. Yoga did not lead me to Hinduism, but when I began to study Vedanta, read the Upanishads, and otherwise intellectually lean towards embracing Sanātana Dharma, yoga was there to help tie everything together and to help turn what was initially a purely intellectual exercise into something more holistic, uniting body, mind and spirit.
Like many people who lived in the USA in the 1970s and 80s, ‘doing yoga’ meant practicing postures –- asanas –- in front of a TV tuned to PBS (the nation’s non-profit Public Broadcasting Service). There was this lovely, intelligent woman with a long, dark ponytail, often wearing a mono-coloured bodysuit, set atop a beige carpeted platform: Lilias Folan’s Lilias, Yoga and You ran for 20 years, from 1972 to 1992 and was influential in introducing millions to yoga in a non-sectarian, warm and friendly manner. I’ve recently watched some of the early episodes on YouTube and am amazed at how well the program has stood the test of time. The new generation of fitness-yoga stars may be flashier, more media savvy, patented, legally incorporated, portfolio-diversified and mass marketed, but Lilias’ traditional and effective practice set a standard and is still respected and going strong.
“I first began… in a darkened TV studio, teaching to a red light. But I never felt alone in that studio — I could always sense my unseen class. I pictured each student getting off the couch and sitting with me on the floor. Because I could not see my students, their comfort and safety in poses was always a prime concern. Going slowly through the postures, pulling them apart, and being clear about details and alignment became a style of teaching. The cameras used the body as a blackboard so the audience could see the poses and breathing from all angles. It was very important for me to explain everything I could about each pose and make sure I gave all the information needed to practice effectively and without injury. This was the beginning of Lilias yoga.”
Yoga is not Hinduism . . .
And Hinduism is not yoga. But to deny that the two are intimately linked –- or, I should say, yoked together –- is like spitting into the wind.
There are two popular ways of approaching yoga in the West today. One is as a purely physical, gym-exercise form of yoga. The other is happily spiritual or philosophically based, but it spends a good deal of time downplaying its bonds with Sanātana Dharma. These two trends may seem at odds, but one thing they have in common is their desire to thrive in the face of misunderstanding and unwarranted animosity.
“Yoga is demonic. If you just sign up for a little yoga class, you're signing up for a little demon class," said American pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Seattle. His words went global in October 2010, igniting a storm of controversy and bringing to wider attention a certain brand of long-simmering hostility. Far from being some dark and nefarious activity, “Yoga is the arresting of all mental activity,” as one book on Hinduism puts it. “It aims at nothing short of emptying the mind. [But] this void has been found threatening by some Christians, who fear that the mind will be filled by evil,” so they have consequently denounced it (Kantitkar and Cole, Hinduism: An Introduction, 259).
These denunciations are not actually assaults on a sequence of physical postures or breathing exercises. They are assaults on Hinduism (and other philosophies and faiths that practice yoga), which people like Pastor Driscoll fear is a force of darkness attempting to surreptitiously lure people away from their ‘natural’ beliefs. At the heart of such attacks is an entrenched ignorance about Hinduism itself, based in part on an inability to believe that Hindus do not, as a rule, proselytise –- not usually in any way, but certainly not slyly or aggressively. It is also based on stereotypes about the supposed ‘evils’ of polytheism and the purported ‘satanic’ nature of idolatry.
While there may be a sub-set of greater Hinduism that meets the simplified definition of polytheism propounded by the likes of Driscoll, mainstream Hinduism actually does not: Hindus believe in one God through the agency of many gods. Hindus believe there is one supreme spiritual Being, the one Absolute, called Brahman, who is “made manifest under different names and in various appearances” (Kantikar and Cole, 32). All these various appearances or deities of Hinduism are, in effect, aspects of the one Brahman. The murtis of Hinduism (often poorly translated as ‘idols’) are aids to worship, not objects of worship in themselves.
Yoga is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, originating in ancient India. In and of itself, yoga is not a religious practice. It is a physical, mental and spiritual discipline that many Hindus (and Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Wiccans, Druids, agnostics, atheists) utilise to achieve a variety of objectives. The Sanskrit root word ‘yuj’ means “the act of yoking or harnessing.”
For those of a non-theistic or non-spiritual bent, yoga can be utilised as a physical discipline without adherence to any doctrine or lifestyle. It can be the yoking of body, mind and intention toward the goal of greater health and longevity. It can, furthermore, help a practitioner sustain a more holistic view of the world and one’s place in it, aligning one’s sense of personal wholeness and union with the rest of humanity, other forms of life, and the environment.
For those of a spiritual disposition, yoga can provide a method for strengthening their progress along their own path, without severing them from the faith they follow. It can provide a pathway towards the yoking together of self and Self, or rather a union of the individual’s spirit and the supreme Spirit, whatever they believe that Spirit or God to be.
No one has to convert to practice yoga. Yoga is not out to surreptitiously change anyone’s faith. Yoga does not prescribe any religion or belief. But for those who wish it, yoga can support their belief system and bring them closer to whatever concept of God, gods, spirit or the universe gives them peace.
So, when I say I practice yoga . . .
I understand that not all Hindus do.
I understand that not all yogins are Hindu.
When I say ‘I do yoga’ (by which I mean traditional yoga, comprised of postures, breathing exercises, meditation, ethical self-reflection and the discipline of daily practice), I mean I have found a framework for exploring what I feel deeply, for quieting my mind long enough to listen to the natural flow of my breath, and for attaining a state of consciousness in which the True Self can be more fully revealed.
I understand that this is my path and it is not what yoga is for everyone.
But it will do just fine for me.